Why George Osborne’s cuts will widen inequality

The countries with the biggest cuts also suffered the largest increases in inequality.

Rarely a week goes by without George Osborne proclaiming that the coalition's cuts are "progressive", but past experience suggests that they will trigger a huge increase in inequality.

The graphic below, from today's Financial Times, shows that the countries with the biggest deficit reductions (Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden) also suffered the largest increases in inequality. Nick Clegg may have promised that there will be no return to "sink-or-swim economics", but since the poor are disproportionately reliant on public services, they will be hit hardest by cuts.

As the second graph shows, while public services represent 62 per cent of disposable income for the poorest fifth, they represent just 8 per cent for the top fifth.

There's also a sober warning from the OECD's Herwig Immervoll, author of a study on the subject, that the comparatively small size of the UK's welfare state means that the rise in inequality is likely to be more severe. "Because there is already less public spending on some areas, there is a risk that it will crumble away more quickly," he says.

Olli Kangas, another expert on inequality, pointed out: "Sweden has a fat welfare state, Finland's is a bit slimmer, and in the UK it is thin.

"If the welfare state is losing weight it will have more impact in the UK than in Sweden and Finland."

The government's decision to opt for an unequal ratio of spending cuts to tax rises (Osborne currently envisages a 77:23 split) also means that the economic pain will be focused on the poor.

The coalition now has a choice. It can either abandon the regressive aspects of its deficit reduction programme, or it can, in true Thatcherite style, argue that the need to cut public spending trumps all social concerns. The current approach, of dressing regressive cuts up as "progressive", is intellectually and morally unsustainable.

Spending

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.